language & linguistics

The least interesting question about Edna Ferber

can't win an argument

I generally avoid the Grammarly blog because … well, if you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you probably know that I have a PhD in linguistics and I find nothing helpful or amusing in endless debates about where to put commas, and titles like this one:  5 Verb Mistakes You Should Stop Making Today make me break out in hives. Academic linguists are not prescriptive. We study language as it exists.  

This is not to say that Grammarly is without merit. It created a lucrative niche by coming up with software that evaluates written language and “corrects contextual spelling mistakes, checks for more than 250 common grammar errors, enhances vocabulary usage and provides citation suggestions.” It is a for-profit subscription service with a lot of subscribers. But they also post about language and writing more generally, and that’s the subject here.

There’s a post dated yesterday with the title 5 Authors Who Died Old Maids.

I am disturbed by this post for a whole slew of reasons. “Old Maid” strikes me as demeaning, to start, but the bigger problem is the premise. 

There is no real way to know about the personal lives of most 19th century women writers unless they made a public statement — and even then, there’s lots of room for debate. (And let me pose a question: do we need to know or is this garden-variety nosiness about famous people?)

Five authors, none of whom married. Should we assume that they would have liked to marry? That they were unhappy about never marrying?  That’s a leap I’m not prepared to take, primarily because there are unstated options. Today or in the 19th century a woman might marry for a lot of reasons — economics, family pressures, love — and she might never marry for even more. Unrequited love, certainly. But it should be obvious that some women aren’t (and were not) interested in marriage in the traditional sense. 

There’s no clear evidence regarding Edna Ferber’s sexuality, but Louisa May Alcott was pretty open about her attraction to women. From the introduction to Little Women (Penguin Classic edition) “… Alcott later commented with pre-Freudian candor on her own feelings: ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … Because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.'”  

The post author states:

…plenty of female writers chose to stay single their entire lives. For these women, marital status had no bearing on their creativity.  

I’m not sure how to read that. Does she mean “For these women, staying single had no bearing on their creativity” ? If so, is the underlying assumption that married women are more (or less) free to pursue creative impulse? 

The bottom line is, I need to stay away from Grammarly. But I had to point out for my own peace of mind that women writers in the 19th century were just as complicated as women are today. Whether or not they married is possibly the least interesting thing about them as individuals. 

French speakers: I need your input

You have helped me many times before with language questions. Here I am again. You’ve got a character sitting in a hotel in France writing a telegram to the U.S.  The year is 1884.

  1.  What would the telegraph office in the hotel be called (because hotels did have telegraph offices)?
  2.  How would the person write out the date and time? For example, an American at that time could write

 2 June 1884  8:00 a.m.

2nd June 1884 8 a.m.

June 2, 1884 8 am

but I’m pretty sure the time especially would be handled in a different way.

Any help much appreciated.

Off to San Diego: Linguistics

I leave tomorrow to give a paper at the University of California/San Diego. Two or three times a year I get invited to come tell people about my work in linguistics, and I always accept because it’s a way to stay in the academic loop and talk to people with similar interests and new perspectives.

This particular talk is about the way children learn stereotypes from animated film, but I’ve talked about a lot of different areas of my research, from legal issues to real estate. Really.  To give you an idea of what I’m doing this time, here’s a chart from the first edition of English with an Accent based on an analysis of characters with speaking roles in Disney animated films that came out before 1998.  Proof positive: I am an academic nerd. Click for a somewhat less fuzzy image.


Summary: Dialect in Dialogue

I came across this material while I was sorting through posts, and I thought it might be useful to those of you who are writing fiction.
mouth open

Click to watch Polar Bear on Vimeo: storytelling in the classroom

Fact: everybody has some kind of regional and social dialect.

Question: Which features indicate differences in national or regional origin; social standing; economics, for the spoken language? And how best to get them across in the written language?


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